Sunday, September 1, 2019

Calling International Rescue - no, the OTHER International Rescue

I was born too late for Thunderbirds. The seminal 1965-66 Gerry Anderson Supermarionation adventure show was instead beloved by that late Boomer contingent of kids maybe too young for James Bond or the Rolling Stones, but just the right age for a show filled with model kits manned by big-headed puppets named after astronauts zooming through miniature sets while carefully placed explosions create disaster all around them. Those kids, and the genius of Gerry Anderson and crew, made Thunderbirds an instant icon and an early British TV export success, creating a wave of toyetic die-cast merchandising the likes of which Mom and Dad’s wallets and pocketbooks had never seen. But I missed all that. 

What I WAS old enough for was Thunderbirds 2086, the 1982 Japanese cartoon that took the International Rescue concept and dressed it out with big-eye anime characters, updated SF mecha design and a running time more suited for modern attention spans. And yet the sad truth is that the show was sort of a Derek Meddings misfire that only managed 24 episodes, six of which didn’t even air in Japan, all of which I missed on its first go-round. Airing in Japan as 科学救助隊テクノボイジャ or Kagaku Kyūjo Tai Tekunoboijā (Scientific Rescue Team Technoboyager to you and me), the series premiered on Japan's Fuji TV in April of 1982 and was gone a mere eighteen weeks later. 

the Technoboyagers, or Thunderbirds if you prefer

As a show about a high-tech rescue team using amazing vehicles to save lives and property amid terrible dangers, Thunderbirds 2086 is loosely based on the Thunderbirds template - so loosely, in fact, that some Thunderbirds purists don't consider it part of the Thunderbirds universe at all, which is kind of a weird attitude to take about a series called "Thunderbirds" about an International Rescue team that rescues people internationally in vehicles designated TB-1, TB-2, and so on. However, if there’s one thing I’ve never been accused of, it’s being a Thunderbirds purist. 

if you suspect you have T.B. Love, see your doctor


So why "Technoboyager" and not "Thunderbirds?" Well, there’s this guy, Banjiro Uemura, who founded Tohoku Shinsha, produced the Toei Star Wars homage Message From Space and financed the Tippi Hedren jungle cat fiasco Roar. Banjiro was fresh from a meeting with his pal Gerry Anderson and another meeting with puppet super-robot show X-Bomber producer Kimio Ikeda when he pitched a new Thunderbirds show to Japanese television execs. Well sir, it was not a good time for that particular pitch. Japan’s current rerun of the original Thunderbirds TV show was dying in the ratings. Toy sponsor Popy's sales of Thunderbirds toys were in a crash dive, and not the good kind of crash dive like on “Stingray.” Clearly kids did not want anything called "Thunderbirds." Hence a quick rebranding as Technoboyager, a portmanteau of "technology," "boy," and "voyager." Did this name change help, hinder, or merely confuse? Probably those last two. 

Meanwhile, UK based Thunderbirds distributor ITC Entertainment - you know, the guys that gave America The Muppet Show, Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased), and Secret Agent aka Danger Man - when ITC packaged this new series for international rescue, I mean broadcast, the Thunderbirds legacy was embraced wholeheartedly as a selling point to global TV markets that hadn't seen Gerry Anderson's original series in a while and might harbor some lingering nostalgia or at least name recognition for the 60s puppet adventure.
ITC trade ad pitching TB2086

Retitled Thunderbirds 2086, the English language version was brought to life by Thunderbirds In Outer Space producer Robert Mandell, localized by veteran anime localizer Peter Fernandez, edited for content not suitable for Western TV cartoon audiences, shown out of original broadcast order, and peppered with new and by now very dated computer graphic insert shots.

In spite of name changes, computer graphics and 60s nostalgia, our Technoboyagers fared only slightly better outside of Japan. The series came and went in the UK, Spain, Malaysia, Australia (perhaps part of Seven Network’s “Agro’s Cartoon Connection?”), Italy, Portugal, the Arabic world, Edmonton Canada's CITV (channel 13) and a few US television markets that sadly didn’t include my home town – but did include NYC powerhouse Channel 11 WPIX, home of the Yankees, “Captain Jack,” and the WPIX Yule Log. Thunderbirds 2086 was also edited into 90 minute compilation films that aired on Showtime cable TV, which my family didn't get. I had to content myself with one measly, static-filled VHS copy of one of those Showtime airings, just to reassure my cartoon-obsessed self the thing actually existed. Later I was able to find a few of the commercially released VHS tapes of the show, and I filled in the gaps with episodes recorded off TV acquired via tape-swapping with fans lucky enough to live in one of its broadcast areas. 

getting nothing but static on Channel Z

And if you're like me, an 80s lad hungry for science fiction TV animation, you’ll find TB2086 to be a refreshing dose of hard SF, conspicuous in a cartoon landscape full of magical elves, improbable lion based super robots, and Super Friend Challenges. Our Thunderbirds zoom into disasters involving decaying solar orbits, high-G boosts to Jupiter, genetically engineered killer plants, mutated viruses, and malfunctioning central computers, all with a pleasant lack of ro-beasts and galactic overlords. I don't mean to say the show slavishly obeys the laws of physics - our Thunderbirds still bank and turn in outer space like airplanes, instead of making controlled burns and watching their Delta-V like real space vehicles are forced to. But microgravity, explosive decompression, and the almost inconceivable distances between the planets of our solar system are dealt with realistically, without cheats like hyperspace, teleportation or artificial gravity. 

My Anime article on Technoboyager - note early Catherine character design

Thunderbirds 2086 jettisons the original series' Tracy family concept, along with the secret island and the spy elements. Instead, our new International Rescue Organization team is a multi-national crew operating under the auspices of what the show calls the Earth Federation and headquartered in a gigantic pyramidal mega structure, eponymously titled “The Arcology”. Under the command of Gerard Simpson, the Thunderbirds team leader is the gentle giant Gran Hanson, who pilots the tank-like TB-3. 

Commander Simpson, Gran Hansen

Hidaka and Catherine, or Dylan and Kallan, if you prefer
Our real stars are TB-1 pilot Hidaka Raiji (Dylan Beda in Thunderbirds 2086) and TB-4 sub commander Catherine Hayward / Kallan James. Hidaka is a karate-master Japanese equally competent with laser-pistol or interplanetary spacecraft so obviously he's gonna be our hero. Catherine breaks the anime girl character mold by failing to be some scientist’s daughter or a princess or somebody’s long-suffering girlfriend or any combination of the three – instead she’s a competent professional who knows her job and does it well and doesn’t take any static from anybody, who has a life and friends outside her IRO career and gets the show past the Bechdel test before the Bechdel test was even a thing. Are Catherine and Hidaka an item? The show’s pretty vague, but the 45 single cover tells the story. 

Rounding out our Technoboyager team is the TB-2 navigator/pilot crew of classy Brit Eric Jones and former NFL player Sammy Edkins Jr. As one of the few non stereotypical black characters in Japanese animation, Edkins also puts Technoboyager into new and progressive territory, especially when he’s at the disco. Because it might be 2086, but in some places it’s still very much 1982. For Thunderbirds 2086, Eric Jones would become the southern-dialect Jesse Rigel and Sammy Edkins would be localized as Jonathan Jordan Junior and get a mild but distinct Caribbean accent, which is not a thing I’ve heard in cartoon voice work before or since. American audiences used to more heterogeneous cartoon casts might not appreciate the international aspect of Technoboyager’s crew, but this was a rarity in Japanese animation at the time, usually content to crew its space cruisers and super robots with all-Japanese casts. 

TB-2's crew of Jesse and Jonathan

Audience identification is delivered via kid sidekick Paul, or Skipper as he’s known in English, an easily impressed tween with neglectful parents who spends all his free time hanging out with the Thunderbird team and occasionally hiding out in vehicles to go on missions because he saw Spritle do it on Speed Racer, or maybe he saw that TV movie where the kid stowed away on an Apollo mission. 

obligatory kid sidekick

I'm not generally a fan of American dubbing and usually prefer Japanese dialogue, but TB2086 is an exception, a Peter Fernandez-helmed localization that avoids Speed Racer style rapid-fire delivery in favor of more naturalistic pacing and relatively authentic characterization. The familiar voice of Earl "Hayata from Ultraman" Hammond lends a comforting authority to the professional voice cast. The script doesn't take itself too seriously and the inevitable technological jargon is leavened by pop culture references and celebrity sound-alikes. If you’re mortally offended by an English dub unafraid to quote Star Wars, 2001 and Monty Python while unabashedly mimicking the Honeymooners and Abbott & Costello, this dub might not be your thing.

TB2086 VHS box art

The animation, by Green Box and AIC, is workmanlike 1980s TV animation; Green Box worked on the tonally similar Yamato III, the nesting-robot adventure Gordian, and Invincible Superman Zanbot 3, and went bankrupt while producing Technoboyagers. Whoops. Meanwhile, AIC had a hand in every piece of 80s anime you loved, and I mean that sincerely. 

my Catherine cel
The show has that clean-line international look that says “let’s sell this to the West,” helped by the character design by Kazuhiko Udagawa, who worked on everything from Pelican Road to Pokemon, from Final Yamato to Future War 198X (fun fact: the unseen-until-the-Japanese DVD box Technoboyager pilot was animated by Japanese cartoon rock star Yoshinori Kanada). Considering the scripts take place everywhere from erupting volcanoes to undersea caverns, from collapsing mountains to mega-cities, the quality of the show’s visuals are pretty remarkable.

Anime fans will take particular note of episode 10 (15 in the TB2086 broadcast order), which was produced by Artland, directed by Noboru “Space Battleship Yamato” Ishiguro, and character-designed by Haruhiko “Megazone 23” Mikimoto. A seeming test run for the upcoming Super Space Fortress Macross, this particular Technoboyager episode stars I Can't Believe It's Not Misa Hayase as a dedicated scientist whose experimental plant turns into a sci-fi cliche plant monster. Thunderbirds 2086 dubs the killer vine "Kudzilla," referencing contemporaneous news reports about how once beneficial import vine Kudzu was at that time taking over vacant lots and back yards throughout the American south, including my backyard. The solution, BTW, is to yank it out of the ground by the roots. Sharp-eyed viewers may notice how certain characters who are rescued and reported “all right” in the TB2086 iteration aren’t quite so lucky in the Japanese version. 

stay tuned for "Macross" on these stations

A Thunderbirds show is going to live or die on its mechanical design, and Yasushi Ishizu’s designs live up to the challenge. Ishizu would go on to design for Mobile Suit Gundam 0083, Dirty Pair, Crusher Joe, and Space Battleship Yamato 2199, so you know he’s doing something right. Some of the 2086 vehicles stick close to the 60s designs, but others are wholly new creations. Let’s give these Thunderbirds mecha a quick rundown, shall we? Let’s. 

the TB 1-2-3 combo

TB-1 is a Space Shuttle type high-speed Earth orbital vehicle. TB-2 is a vertical-launch cargo-delivery vehicle that requires a booster to achieve Earth orbit. TB-3 is large transport and rescue tracked vehicle that’s heavily armored and can use JATO units to fly for short distances. TB 1, 2, and 3 combine into an integrated unit in a sequence we see in pretty much every episode, so get used to it. TB-4 is a search and rescue submarine which has various detachable vehicles including a combat submarine and a small one-operator sub. It can’t combine with the flying vehicles, but they arrive at the disaster areas at pretty much the same time, so that’s one fast submarine.

TB-5 is that beloved of science-fiction vehicles, the “At The Earth’s Core” style drill vehicle. TB-6 is the orbital nerve center of IRO, 3.4 KM of space station crewed by hundreds of International Rescue team members, making everybody wonder exactly how many people work for the IRO. TB-7 is a high-speed jet interceptor launched from TB-1 and/or TB-2. TB-8 is a hover-bulldozer carried by TB-1. TB-9 is a one-man powered exoskeleton for outer space repair work. TB-10 is a high-speed space courier vehicle launched from TB-2, capable of speeds of up to Mach 176. TB-11 is for when the Thunderbirds need to head out on the highway, it’s a fast sports car carried in TB-3. TB-12 is a caterpillar-tread telescoping platform/bulldozer vehicle carried by TB-1 and/or TB-3. TB-13 is a solo-operator high-speed submarine.
TB-7, TB-9, TB-10, TB-12

TB-14 is a bathysphere for extreme ocean depths, and both are transported by TB-4. TB-15 is a wheeled reconnaissance/comm vehicle carried by TB-5 and TB-15 itself has a separate unmanned drone. TB-16 is another drill car, this one’s remote controlled and carried by TB-5. TB-17 is a massive high-boost plasma engine vehicle used for Thunderbirds operations outside Earth orbit. How massive? It can ferry *all* the other Thunderbirds vehicles at a maximum acceleration of 10Gs. 

Technoboyager is a mechanical design wonderland, filled with high tech everything, from space ships, space stations, moon colonies, O’Neill style space habitats, and undersea research stations; the kind of SF world building that helps to sell us that this is the future and that the dangers of our advanced technology require dramatic survival resources mobilized at a moment’s notice. The series is filled with gargantuan super-constructions like the Arcology and the two mile long TB-6 space station, giving all the adventures an epic backdrop.

The Arcology


This vast space-opera immensity is reinforced by the excellent orchestral soundtrack by Kentaro Haneda, whose scores include Final Yamato and Macrosses Frontier and Delta. Here his huge, bold, brassy themes are filled with the ominous wonder of the stars, bravely intoning Important Things Are Happening In Outer Space, Prepare For Blastoff. 

Most Thunderbirds 2086 episodes are self-contained adventures, but we catch glimpses of what might have developed into a story arc, if the show had lasted long enough. The Shadow Axis, a mysterious interplanetary terrorist organization that was “behind the rebellion in the Asteroid Colonies” (is this a Gundam side story?) are up to various solar system-conquering shenanigans, and in three episodes the Thunderbirds team find themselves mixed up in their schemes. But for the most part this show doesn’t bother with any sort of over-arching narrative, refreshing in this age of convoluted multi-season storylines. 

shadowy and not-so-shadowy agents of the Shadow Axis

Instead we see the IRO protecting a marine wildlife sanctuary from a mid-ocean chemical spill, rescuing a monorail full of schoolchildren trapped in an Alpine tunnel during an avalanche, rescuing a disabled space shuttle full of schoolchildren, rescuing two schoolchildren who accidentally launch TB-1 into the side of a building, rescuing an entire city
disaster strikes!
(which probably includes schoolchildren) from a deranged supercomputer, and saving Moonbase Omega from a deranged supercomputer who enjoys quoting the Control Voice from “Outer Limits.” The crew hops into acceleration pods to survive a three hour trip to Pluto (now that’s traveling, kids) and rescues a solar observatory from getting a lot closer than intended to the sun by the simple expedient of causing a solar flare. 

Let’s break it down; it’s a mid 1980s anime series filled with well-designed mecha, decent animation, great music and space adventure built on the foundation of a beloved 60s pop icon, bringing two fandoms together like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of Supermarionation and SF cartoons. What’s not to love, 80s audiences? What’s your problem? Why wasn’t this a hit? Why do we have to dig around for this one while other shows of the same vintage get Western home-video releases two, three, four times? Well, sometimes not even the high-speed plasma boost vehicles or the subterranean drill tanks of International Rescue can rescue a show from being in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, we can’t give up hope. Perhaps some streaming service or boutique DVD licensor of the future will rescue Thunderbirds 2086 from the no doubt high-tech multi-function dustbin it currently occupies, maybe using some sort of elaborate mechanical flying submarine or a hovercraft bulldozer. We can only hope. 

-Dave Merrill

they aren't fooling anybody